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People walk in front of election posters in Eldoret, Kenya, on Aug. 10.Brian Inganga/The Associated Press

In one of the tightest presidential election races in Kenyan history, former prime minister Raila Odinga held a narrow lead over his main rival in unofficial counts a day after the voting ended.

Mr. Odinga was slightly ahead of Deputy President William Ruto in the unofficial count on Wednesday evening, based on results from about half of Kenya’s voting stations, according to the tabulations by two major media outlets.

The Citizen, a leading television channel, and The Nation, a leading newspaper, both showed Mr. Odinga with about 50 per cent of the vote, while Mr. Ruto held about 49 per cent of the vote.

The closeness of the race has sparked fears of possible violence on the streets if one of the candidates rejects the result. Kenya is still scarred by postelection violence that killed about 1,500 people after the 2007 vote. But a new system of posting the results digitally has made it more difficult for the candidates to complain of vote-rigging, which could reduce the risk of violence.

In a process that is seen as the most transparent and open in Kenyan history, each of the country’s 46,000 voting stations is uploading its vote count to the election commission’s central website, where each of the tabulations is publicly accessible. By Wednesday evening, more than 99 per cent of voting stations had uploaded their results to the public website.

Because the result tabulations were handwritten and then photographed, the independent counts by media outlets were slow and cumbersome, and the official result is likely to take several days to announce. But analysts praised the digital system, predicting it would prevent vote-rigging, since anyone would be able to verify the official result by doing their own count of the voting-station results.

A man reads a newspaper while seated near a campaign billboard of Raila Odinga and his running mate Martha Karua, following Kenya's general election in Nairobi on Aug. 10.AFP Contributor#AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The two presidential frontrunners are veteran members of the Kenyan political establishment. The 77-year-old Mr. Odinga was imprisoned for eight years between 1982 and 1991 when he fought for multiparty democracy, but later became a cabinet minister and prime minister. After four failed bids for the presidency, he has now been endorsed by his former rival, President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is constitutionally barred from a third term in office.

Mr. Ruto, 55, is running as an outsider, calling himself a “hustler” who will help the “Hustler Nation” of the unemployed and poor. But he is unlikely to shake up the establishment, since he has been Mr. Kenyatta’s deputy president since 2013. Both of the frontrunners are known to be wealthy landowners.

Faced with two candidates who seemed to represent the status quo, many Kenyans opted not to vote. Voter turnout in this election, based on preliminary numbers, was about 65 per cent, according to the election commission’s estimate on Wednesday. This number could increase, but it will still be far below the turnout of almost 80 per cent in the past election in 2017.

“For lots of Kenyans, there’s not much to choose from,” Kenyan political commentator Patrick Gathara said in an online panel after the vote. “I don’t think anyone believes that either of them will deliver change.”

John Githongo, a Kenyan journalist and anti-corruption campaigner, has described the vote as “an election about nothing” – a contest that lacked any big idea or galvanizing issue. Wandia Njoya, a scholar and blogger, called it a “mockery” of a choice between “two non-options.”

Both of the presidential frontrunners have promised to fight for the poor. Mr. Ruto has pledged to create a “hustler fund” to provide loans to small traders, while Mr. Odinga is promising a monthly stipend of about US$50 for the poorest of the poor.

Much of the media attention has focused on Mr. Odinga’s running mate, former justice minister Martha Karua, who will become the first woman to be Kenya’s deputy president if they win the election.

If no candidate wins 50 per cent of the vote, a runoff will be held between the two frontrunners, eliminating two fringe candidates. That, too, would be the first in Kenyan history.

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